Author Archives: larrycuban

About larrycuban

I am a former high school teacher and district superintendent who has researched school reform policies, the history of teaching, and classroom technologies for many years

Cartoons on Screen Time for Children and Adults

The amount of adults, children, and youth spend watching tiny screens–smart phones–medium screens–tablets and laptops–and big screens–television/cable have made a splash in social and mainline media in the past year. Too much time watching all sorts of screen, according to experts who use the vocabulary of “addiction,” “dependency,” and “passivity,” has led to claims that too much screen time leads to physical and mental dysfunction such as obesity and alienation from people and reality.

Of course, cartoonists have never been shy in probing at national obsessions . Here are some cartoons that get at technological obsessions. Enjoy !




































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How Teachers Taught: Patterns of Instruction, 1890-2010

The last two posts (see here and here) on “direct instruction” and ways of measuring teacher talk vs. student talk got me thinking again about an obvious but often unasked question: how have teachers taught over the past century?

Policy debates over social-emotional curriculum, problem-based learning, and universal preschools seldom ask: how have teachers taught? What patterns of teaching have marked classrooms decade after decade? What kinds of change in teaching have occurred and which ones are best for students?

The main reason for this startling omission in policy debates is that few decision-makers can say with confidence how most teachers teach now or in the past.

I, and other researchers (see here and here), have tried to answer some of those questions over the past 30 years. Answers to these questions can inform current policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers as they consider well-intentioned but ill-informed policies that push certain kinds of teaching in order to improve student learning.

In How Teachers Taught (1984, 1993) and Hugging the Middle (2009), I collected 9,000 urban and rural classroom reports between 1890-2005 on common features of teaching. I examined how teachers organized classroom space, grouped students, and structured tasks for students after repeated progressive efforts to alter traditional teacher pedagogy occurred in the 20th century. I found the following classroom patterns.

Since the 1890s, the social organization of the classroom has become informal. In the early 20th century, dress-clad women and tie-wearing men facing rows of 50-plus bolted down desks controlled every move of students. They gave permission for students to leave their seat. They required students to stand when reciting from the textbook or answering a question. Teachers often scowled, reprimanded, and paddled students for misbehaving.


Image result for photos of bolted down desks in 19th century classrooms

Image result for photos of bolted down desks in 19th century classrooms


Over the decades, however, classroom organization and teacher behavior slowly changed. By 2010, few classrooms had rows of immovable desks. Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades, so students faced one another. Jean-wearing teachers drinking coffee smiled often at their classes. Students went to a pencil sharpener or elsewhere in the room without asking for the teacher’s permission. The dread and repression of the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s sneer slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms where teachers were more informal in language and dress, and had a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.


Image result for photos of bolted down desks in 19th century classrooms

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Since the 1890s, most elementary and a lesser number of secondary teachers had blended student-centered and teacher-centered classroom practices into hybrids. As the social organization of the classroom becoming increasingly informal, most teachers mixed practices drawn from both progressive and traditional forms of teaching.

Grouping. Over time as class size fell from 60 to 30 or less, the student-centered practice of dividing the whole group into smaller ones so that the teacher could work with a few students at a time on reading while the rest worked by themselves slowly took hold among most elementary school teachers. Although variations in grouping occurred among high school teachers in academic subjects, small group work occurred much less frequently.

Classroom activities. A similar pattern occurred with assigning different tasks. “Learning centers,” where individual children would spend a half-hour or more reading a book, playing math games, or drawing and painting, slowly took hold in kindergarten and the primary grades spreading to the upper elementary grades. Learning centers, however, seldom appeared in secondary schools.

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The use of student-projects that tie together reading, math, science, and art—think of a 4th grade class divided into groups or working individually on Native American life—became a standard part of elementary school teachers’ repertoire. In secondary schools, projects appeared in vocational subjects and periodically in science, English, and social studies classes.

Between the 1890s and early 2000s, then, teachers created hybrids of progressive and traditional forms of teaching. In elementary schools, particularly in primary classrooms, richer and diverse melds of the two traditions appeared with far fewer instances surfacing in high schools—allowing for some variation among academic subjects–teacher-centered pedagogy.

Even as classroom organization moved from formal to informal and hybrids of the two teaching traditions multiplied, teacher-centered pedagogy still dominated classroom life. As Philip Jackson noted in his study of suburban teachers, while teacher smiles replaced “scowls and frowns” and current “teachers may exercise their authority more casually than their predecessors,” still “the desire for informality was never sufficiently strong to interfere with institutional definitions of responsibility, authority, and tradition (p. 129).”

Image result for photos of Advanced Placement Classes


One only has to sit in the back of a kindergarten or Advanced Placement calculus class for ten minutes to see amid teacher smiles and many kindnesses to students which teaching tradition dominates. Teachers change students’ seats at will. They ask questions, interrupt students to make a point, tell the class to move from reading to math, and praise or admonish students. Controlling student behavior had shifted over the decades from scowls and slaps to indirect approaches that exploit the teacher’s personality and budding relationships with students but still underscore the fundamental fact of classroom life: teachers use their authority to secure obedience from students for teaching to occur. This is not a criticism. It is a fact of school life.

In light of my findings for classroom instruction between 1890-2010, the two teaching traditions, at opposite ends of a pedagogical continuum, seldom appeared in pure form in classrooms. In schools across the nation where great diversity in children, academic subjects, and teachers were common—even amid “wars” fought in newspapers over phonics and math—teachers created hybrids of subject matter lessons albeit more so among elementary than secondary school teachers. In short, teachers hugged the middle between student-centered and teacher-centered lessons.

Were current policies such as socio-emotional learning, direct instruction, Doug Lemov’s work on Teaching Like a Champion, and similar proposals to be put into practice in your school or district, would teaching continue to hug the middle or move more toward teacher-centered or student-centered lessons?

Or the bell-ringing question to answer: Would students be better or worse off?

No one knows.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, school reform policies

Teacher Talk, Student Talk: Historical Dilemma (Part 2)

Recently, a former teacher-turned entrepreneur and I had a long conversation about a digital tool he had created that measured how much teacher and student talk occurred in a class period. As an ex-high school teacher he often wanted to know how he was doing in class–he said he had never been observed by a principal or headmaster–and was often frustrated by the lack of knowledge of student thinking and learning. So he began figuring out what might be of use to teachers and he hit upon the amount of lesson time in which teachers and students talked.

Why that? Because in his teaching experience, too much teacher talk suffocated student responses. Student responses, he knew, were quick ways for the teacher to figure out the amount of learning going on in students’ heads. Analyzing  the amount of student talk became an ajar door into which he could access student thinking and understanding.

Like many other teachers (including myself), he had stumbled over a historic dilemma classroom teachers had faced for the past century: teacher talk was essential–after all, teachers, past and present, have been hired on the basis of their knowing content and skills and being able to manage a group of children and youth. A certain amount of teacher talk during a lesson the teacher had planned was inevitable. With a large body of evidence that “direct instruction” (lower case) produced gains in student achievement and its historic use in classrooms for generations, teacher talk dominated lessons.

Yet many teachers know in their heart-of-hearts that student talk is crucial and prized also. Students answering and asking questions, commenting on what the teacher said and dozens of other ways that students orally display their knowledge and skills is essential feedback to teachers on what they seek as evidence of student learning. Both values of teacher and student talk are prized. But there is only so much time in a lesson and choices have to be made as to the ratio of teacher- and student-talk. Thus, the dilemma.

Yet many issues need to be sorted out in distinguishing teacher-talk from student-talk.

The initial problem is that most teachers simply do not know how much they talk and how much their students talk. Do most teachers talk 80 percent of a lesson? 70? 60? 50? Historical studies put the ratios in the 65-35 range (see here and here). Individually, few teachers could tell you the ratio of teacher-to-student talk in the lesson they just taught.

The second problem is that there are many kinds of teacher-talk: controlling behavior (“That’s enough Jimmy”); getting activities started (“Count off 1 to 5 for small group work”); asking content questions (“Annie, what does x equal in this equation?”); discussion moves (“Can anyone add to Tiffany’s point?”)—readers get the picture of multiple forms of teacher-talk that would have to be parsed. Ditto for student talk. From asking to go to the bathroom to coaching a classmate on an assignment to entering a discussion–the list goes on for dimensions of student talk. Researchers call such analyses of teacher- and student-talk, “classroom discourse” (see here and here).

The third problem is that no one can say with much confidence what is the best ratio of teacher- to student-talk to have over a semester of teaching or for an individual lesson, given all of the factors involved such as the content of a lesson, age of students, teacher beliefs about how students learn, and other factors.

For those teachers (and teacher educators) who prize student talk and sense they talk too much in lessons, a set of interconnected assumptions drive their thinking. They believe that more student  participation leads to greater academic engagement and greater engagement produces gains in student achievement. This chain of beliefs seldom get aired publicly but rest comfortably within the minds of those educators who seek to raise the amount of student talk. This chain of assumptions are just that. There is little evidence that can buttress the claims buried within the assumptions, especially when it comes to student performance.

So with the help of a software engineer, the former teacher created a tool that recorded what was said in class and immediately converted the talk into color-coded horizontal bars showing when the teacher was talking and when students were talking. It even broke down student talk in response to teachers and talk among students working in small groups and independently. The software gave a big picture of who was doing the talking in a reading lesson by a 1st grade teacher or an Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher conducting a lecture-discussion. There was no sorting out of the content of the talk such as the kind of questions teachers asked or student responses to those questions. It was a macro-view of a lesson in real time that attached percentages to amounts of talk in a classroom.

The young, enthusiastic entrepreneur did not want my endorsement–I told him that I do not endorse products–but he did want to have a conversation about the relationship between teacher and student talk, what problems still needed to be solved–see above–and the linked assumptions that undergird past and present research into the value of increasing student talk and the biases associated with that value.

Our conversation ended after I sketched out the dilemma inherent to parsing teacher- and student talk. As we shook hands and parted, I wished this former teacher well in his work.



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Whatever Happened to Direct Instruction? (Part 1)


It has been and is ubiquitous in teacher lessons. So why even mention it?

Because there is no one version of direct instruction (see here, here, and here) yet research studies and meta-analyses of Direct Instruction (note capital letters, please) have repeatedly concluded that students exposed to such a pedagogy outperform students receiving other forms of instruction, especially student-centered (e.g., project-based learning, “discovery learning”). Sounds like just another silly intellectual argument when it comes to the linkage between educational practice and research. Not so.

The research evidence that direct instruction (lower-case “d and “i”) and Direct Instruction (capital letters) have positive effects on student learning–as measured by standardized test scores–has been around for decades yet most educational researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who urge school and classroom decisions to be data-driven and evidenced-based have hardly popped champagne corks welcoming this clear direction for what teachers should incorporate in their classroom lessons (see here).

This is puzzling. I need to disentangle different reasons for the arm’s length distance from the research on direct instruction. One thread wrapped into this tangle of yarn is that direct instruction is and has been part of teachers’ repertoires since the mid-19th century founding of the age-graded schools. Historically, teachers have lectured, conducted demonstrations, and assessed students to see that they have learned the content and skills. It is ubiquitous among teachers then and now. Most teachers have a knapsack of techniques they use with their students that are hybrids of teacher- and student-centered approaches. Blending high student-participation in whole group activity from a discussion to a quiz game, small-group work, and lectures, say in a U.S. history or Algebra 2 class, is common. Mixed strategies of teaching is the norm among elementary and secondary teachers (see here and here). Yet lecturing, demonstrating, and oral or written questioning to ascertain how much has been learned has gained a negativity so is minimized as a standard part of most teachers’ repertoires.

And another thread to the puzzle is the confusion between upper- and lower-case direct instruction.

Lower-case “direct instruction” as noted above is prevalent among most teachers although a certain reluctance to admit it exists among most teachers. “Direct Instruction” (upper-case letters), however, has been associated with the original Follow Through experiment involving young children in the late-1960s where one of the pedagogical approaches had teachers using scripted lessons (called Distar or Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading).   Sigmund Englemann has continually promoted this form of Direct Instruction through generating new curriculum materials and conducting research on its effects on student learning. Other  similar programs using scripted lessons combined with other approaches would be Success for All and Open Court reading program.

And there is a final thread caught up in this tangle of yarn. Most university teacher educators and school practitioners–but not all– emotionally lean toward student-centered teaching (and far more student substantive student talk in lessons) but find it hard to implement on a daily basis given the constraints of the age-graded school, district and state curricular demands, testing,and accountability.

Thus, university teacher educators and practitioners accepting direct instruction (lower- or upper-case) openly as an evidence-based mode of instruction because of its superior performance in raising test scores would hold it at arms’ length; it would be a betrayal of their beliefs, and here is the kicker, even though on a daily basis they mix teacher- and student-centered techniques in their lessons.

In my study of teaching methods since the late 19th century, recent observations in classrooms, and many other studies of teaching, it has become clear to me that most teachers (and teacher educators) blend teacher- and student-centered techniques into their classroom repertoires. The mixes will differ by academic discipline, age of students, beliefs about how students learn, and other factors but hybrid approaches are dominant.

Nonetheless, even with a decided intellectual tilt toward student-centered instruction and the prevalence of hybrids of teaching techniques, teacher talk still exceeds student talk in classroom lessons–given the constraints of the age-graded school and policies concentrating on standards, testing, and accountability mentioned above. So one question is: what is the ideal ratio between percentage of teacher- and student-talk in a lesson. Is it 80-20? 70-30? 60-40? 50-50? Other questions spill out: what are the categories of teacher talk? What are the different kinds of student talk during a lesson? What are teachers’ verbal moves that encourage further student talk?

No one yet knows answers to these questions.  And this is where a conversation I had with an former teacher-turned entrepreneur enters the picture. See Part 2.







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The Five Paragraph Fetish (David Labaree)

“David Labaree is Lee L Jacks professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. He is the former president of the History of Education Society and former vice president of the American Educational Research Association. His most recent book is A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (2017).”

This post appeared on Aeon on February 15, 2018

Schools and colleges in the United States are adept at teaching students how to write by the numbers. The idea is to make writing easy by eliminating the messy part – making meaning – and focusing effort on reproducing a formal structure. As a result, the act of writing turns from moulding a lump of clay into a unique form to filling a set of jars that are already fired. Not only are the jars unyielding to the touch, but even their number and order are fixed. There are five of them, which, according to the recipe, need to be filled in precise order. Don’t stir. Repeat.

So let’s explore the form and function of this model of writing, considering both the functions it serves and the damage it does. I trace its roots to a series of formalisms that dominate US education at all levels. The foundation is the five-paragraph essay, a form that is chillingly familiar to anyone who has attended high school in the US. In college, the model expands into the five-section research paper. Then in graduate school comes the five-chapter doctoral dissertation. Same jars, same order. By the time the doctoral student becomes a professor, the pattern is set. The Rule of Five is thoroughly fixed in muscle memory, and the scholar is on track to produce a string of journal articles that follow from it. Then it’s time to pass the model on to the next generation. The cycle continues.

Edward M White is one participant in the cycle who decided to fight back. It was the summer of 2007, and he was on the plane home from an ordeal that would have crushed a man with a less robust constitution. An English professor, he had been grading hundreds of five-paragraph essays drawn from the 280,000 that had been submitted that June as part of the Advanced Placement Test in English language and composition. In revenge, he wrote his own five-paragraph essay about the five-paragraph essay, whose fourth paragraph reads:

The last reason to write this way is the most important. Once you have it down, you can use it for practically anything. Does God exist? Well you can say yes and give three reasons, or no and give three different reasons. It doesn’t really matter. You’re sure to get a good grade whatever you pick to put into the formula. And that’s the real reason for education, to get those good grades without thinking too much and using up too much time.

White’s essay – ‘My Five-Paragraph-Theme Theme’ – became an instant classic. True to the form, he lays out the whole story in his opening paragraph:

Since the beginning of time, some college teachers have mocked the five-paragraph theme. But I intend to show that they have been mistaken. There are three reasons why I always write five-paragraph themes. First, it gives me an organisational scheme: an introduction (like this one) setting out three subtopics, three paragraphs for my three subtopics, and a concluding paragraph reminding you what I have said, in case you weren’t paying attention. Second, it focuses my topic, so I don’t just go on and on when I don’t have anything much to say. Three and only three subtopics force me to think in a limited way. And third, it lets me write pretty much the same essay on anything at all. So I do pretty well on essay tests. A lot of teachers actually like the five-paragraph theme as much as I do.

Note the classic elements of the model. The focus on form: content is optional. The comfortingly repetitive structure: here’s what I’m going to say, here I am saying it, and here’s what I just said. The utility for everyone involved: expectations are so clear and so low that every writer can meet them, which means that both teachers and students can succeed without breaking a sweat – a win-win situation if ever there was one. The only thing missing is meaning.

For students who need a little more structure in dealing with the middle three paragraphs that make up what instructors call the ‘body’ of the essay, some helpful tips are available – all couched in the same generic form that could be applicable to anything. According to one online document by a high-school English teacher:

The first paragraph of the body should contain the strongest argument, most significant example, cleverest illustration, or an obvious beginning point. The first sentence of this paragraph should include the ‘reverse hook’ which ties in with the transitional hook at the end of the introductory paragraph. The topic for this paragraph should be in the first or second sentence. This topic should relate to the thesis statement in the introductory paragraph. The last sentence in this paragraph should include a transitional hook to tie into the second paragraph of the body.

You probably won’t be surprised that the second paragraph ‘should contain the second strongest argument, second most significant example, second cleverest illustration, or obvious follow-up to the first paragraph…’ And that the third paragraph ‘should contain the third strongest argument…’ Well, you get the picture.

So where does the fetish for five come from? In part, it arises from the nature of sentences. Language conveys meaning by organising words into an order governed by rules. These rules are what allows the listener to understand the relationship between these words in the way intended by the speaker. The core unit of conveying meaning via language is the sentence, and the rules that define the structure of the sentence are its syntax. By its nature, syntax – like the five-paragraph essay – is all form and no content. Its entire utility derives from the fact that a particular syntactical structure can be used to convey an infinite number of meanings.

Form, therefore, is not just a crutch for beginners to use in trying to learn how to write; it’s also the central tool of writers who are experts at their craft. In his lovely book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (2011), Stanley Fish makes the point that, in writing, form comes before content:

The conventional wisdom is that content comes first – ‘you have to write about something’ is the usual commonplace – but if what you want to do is learn how to compose sentences, content must take a backseat to the mastery of the forms without which you can’t say anything in the first place.

Think of all the syntactical forms that exist to define different kinds of relationships between words in the service of making a point. For example:

If ___, then ___.
Some argue ___, but I argue ___.
On the one hand, ____; but on the other hand, ___.

Consider key words that signal a particular kind of relationship between words, ideas and sentences:

Addition: also, moreover
Elaboration: in short, that is
Example: for instance, after all
Cause and effect: accordingly, since
Comparison: likewise, along the same lines
Contrast: although, but
Concession: admittedly, granted
Conclusion: as a result, therefore

The last set of examples comes from They Say, I Say (2006) by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, which seeks to explain the rhetorical ‘moves that matter in academic writing’. In the appendix, they list a set of syntactical templates that extend over 15 pages. Graduate students in my class on writing find these templates very useful.

The point is that learning to write is extraordinarily difficult, and teaching people how to write is just as hard. Writers need to figure out what they want to say, put it into a series of sentences whose syntax conveys this meaning, arrange those sentences into paragraphs whose syntax carries the idea forward, and organise paragraphs into a structure that captures the argument as a whole. That’s not easy. It’s also not elementary. Fish distils the message into a single paradoxical commandment for writers: ‘You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free.’ The five-paragraph essay format is an effort to provide a framework for accomplishing all this.

The issue is this: as so often happens in subjects that are taught in school, the template designed as a means toward attaining some important end turns into an end in itself. As a consequence, form trumps meaning. For example, elementary-school students learn to divide a number by a fraction using this algorithm: invert and multiply. To divide by ½, you multiply the number by two. This gives you the right answer, but it deflects you from understanding why you might want to divide by a fraction in the first place (eg, to find out how many half-pound bags of flour you could get from a 10-pound container) and why the resulting number is always larger than the original.

Something similar happens with the five-paragraph essay. The form becomes the product. Teachers teach the format as a tool; students use the tool to create five paragraphs that reflect the tool; teachers grade the papers on their degree of alignment with the tool. The form helps students to reproduce the form and get graded on this form. Content, meaning, style, originality and other such values are extraneous – nice but not necessary.

This is a variation of Goodhart’s Law, which says: ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.’ For example, if test scores become the way to measure student and teacher success, then both parties will work to maximise these scores at the expense of acquiring the underlying skills that these scores are supposed to measure. Assess students on their ability to produce the form of a five-paragraph essay and they will do so, at the expense of learning to write persuasive arguments. The key distinction here is between form and formalism. A form is useful and necessary as a means for achieving a valued outcome. But when form becomes the valued outcome, then it has turned into formalism.

An extreme example of this phenomenon has emerged in the growing field of machine-graded essays. Having experts grade large numbers of papers, such as for the advanced-placement composition exercise that White took part in, is extremely labour-intensive and expensive, not to say mind-numbing. So the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and other companies have come up with automated systems that can take over this function by deploying a series of algorithms that purportedly define good writing.

The problem, of course, is that these systems are better at identifying the formal characteristics of these essays than at discerning their meaning. To demonstrate this Les Perelman, along with Louis Sobel, Milo Beckman, and Damien Jiang, invented a Babel Generator that is capable of producing essays from any three keywords, and of gaining a perfect score on the ETS assessment. They did this by gearing the generator to the ETS algorithms, which allows them to produce the desired measure without all that messy stuff about creating logical and compelling arguments. Here’s the first paragraph of a Babel Generator essay defined by three keywords: classroom, pedagogy, and inequality:

Classroom on the contradiction has not, and no doubt never will be aberrant. Pedagogy is the most fundamental trope of mankind; some with perjury and others on amanuenses. A howling classroom lies in the search for theory of knowledge together with the study of philosophy. Pedagogy is Libertarian due to its all of the concessions by retorts.

As you can see, the algorithm rewards big words and long sentences rather than meaning. (Try it yourself.)

Of course, students still need to provide some semblance of subject matter for their essays. But there are plenty of handy resources available to produce relevant content on demand. When I was in school, the key resource for students who needed to write an essay on some topic or other was the encyclopaedia. In my family, it was the World Book Encyclopedia, which offered glossy pages and ample illustrations, and which used fewer big words than the canonical but stuffy Encyclopaedia Britannica. Look up the topic, read a short summary piece, and then crib it for your paper. In the 1950s and ’60s in the US, encyclopaedia salesmen sold these pricey products door-to-door, and their pitch was compelling: ‘Do you want your kids to have a good life? Then they need to succeed in school. And the encyclopaedia is the key to school success, the added element that will move your children ahead of their peers.’ It worked. Owning an encyclopaedia (26 volumes, $500) became the badge of the middle-class family – to the point where mid-century sociologists used encyclopaedia ownership as a key criterion for coding subjects as middle class.

The multivolume encyclopaedia has receded into history; the last hard-copy Britannica was published in 2010. Now students use Google as their primary ‘research’ tool, and the top search result for most topics tends to be Wikipedia. The latter serves the same function for students – capsulised and bowdlerised content ready for insertion into the five-paragraph essay. Plug and play. The perfect tool for gaming the system of producing papers for school.

It is possible to teach students how to write as a way to make meaning rather than fill pots. The problem is that it’s much more difficult for both student and teacher. For students, it takes a lot longer to get better at writing this way, and the path to improvement is littered with the discouraging wreckage of dysfunctional sentences and incoherent arguments. And for teachers, the difficulty of teaching the skill this way undermines their sense of professional competence. In addition, grading papers for meaning takes a lot more time and involves a lot more judgment than grading for form – which, after all, can be done by a computer.

Carrying out this kind of teaching calls for concentrating effort at two levels. One is teaching students how to make meaning at the sentence level, using syntax to organise words to say what you want them to say. Books on writing at the sentence level – my favourites are Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (1981) by Joseph Bizup and Joseph M Williams, now in its 11th edition; and Fish’s How to Write a Sentence – lay out a series of useful rules of thumb: be clear, be concise, be direct, focus on actors and actions, play with language, listen for the music. The other is teaching students how to make meaning across an entire text, using rhetorical moves that help them structure a compelling argument from beginning to end. My favourite book in this genre is Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say. I use all three in a graduate class I teach on academic writing.

I’ve also developed my own set of questions that writers need to answer when constructing an analytical text:

  1.  What’s the point? This is the analysis issue: what is your angle?
    2. Who says? This is the validity issue: on what (data, literature) are you basing your claims?
    3. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: what do you contribute that we don’t already know?
    4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others. Is this work worth doing? Is the text worth reading?

But, you ask, aren’t these just alternative sets of rules, much like the Rule of Five? I say no. One difference is that these are clearly labelled not as rules but rules of thumb. They are things to keep in mind as you write (and especially as you edit your writing), many of which might be in tension with each other, and which you must draw upon or ignore as needed. Another difference is that they resist the temptation to provide a rigid structure for a text of the kind that I have been discussing here. Deal with issues in the literature where it helps to frame and support your argument rather than confining it to the lit-review ghetto. And don’t make the reader wait until the conclusion to find out what gives the text significance; most people would stop long before this point.

Rules of thumb call for the writer to exercise judgment rather than follow the format. Of course, it takes more time and effort to develop writerly judgment than it does to follow the shortcut of the five-paragraph essay. Form is harder than formalism. But the result is a text that does more than just look like a piece of writing; it makes meaning.

Let’s turn away from the ideal case – learning to write for meaning – and dive back into the real world: teaching school students to write by filling five pots with words. When students get to college, their skills in writing five-paragraph essays start to pay off big time. Compared with high school, the number of papers they need to write in a semester grows exponentially, the required length of papers also shoots up, and there is increasing expectation that these papers demonstrate a bit of professional polish. This pressure to turn out a lot of reasonably competent writing in a short period of time puts a premium on a student’s skills to produce text efficiently. And once again, the Rule of Five comes to the rescue. Nothing aids efficiency better than an easily reproducible template. This leads to two elaborations of the basic model.

The first is a simple extension of the model into a format with more than five paragraphs. The length is greater but the structure is the same: a general claim, followed by three pieces of evidence to support it, leading to a conclusion. The college version of the model also ups the ante on the kind of content that is deemed acceptable. Increasingly, the generic synthesis sources that were so helpful in high school – variations on the old encyclopaedia – are no longer sufficient. This is particularly true in selective colleges, where faculty members expect students to gain familiarity with this thing that they call ‘the literature’. Cribbing from the commons is bush league; if you’re Ivy League, you need to crib from the best – refereed journal articles by top scholars. Plug in a topic, and Google Scholar provides you with the most cited pieces on the topic. You don’t have to read them, just cite them as evidence in sections two, three and four.

The second version of the model is for students who are thinking about graduate school. They can’t settle for supporting an argument with just three sources; they need to produce ‘research’. This means that they need to define an issue, draw on the literature about that issue, develop a method for gathering data about the issue, analyse the data, and draw conclusions. Sounds complicated, but relax: it’s really not that hard. The Rule of Five is up to the challenge. The paper format contains five standard sections. All you have to do is fill them with plausible content. Here’s the model:

Section 1: Introduce the argument
Section 2: Summarise the relevant literature
Section 3: Spell out your research method
Section 4: Present your findings and analyse them
Section 5: Draw conclusions

The argument is – whatever. The literature is a few things you found on Google related to the argument. The method is how you’re going to find data that could plausibly inform the argument. Findings are some things you encounter that might support your point (think evidence one, evidence two, evidence three from the five-paragraph model). And the conclusion is that, wow, everything lines up to support your original claim. QED. But now suddenly your writing is telling the world: I’m ready for graduate school.

The transition from the college research paper to the doctoral dissertation is not as big a jump as you might think. The Rule of Five lives on in the canonical structure for the dissertation, which by now should look familiar:

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Review of the literature
Chapter 3: Methods
Chapter 4: Analysis/findings
Chapter 5: Conclusion

Guides on dissertation-writing specify the content of each of the five chapters in detail, with this detail looking remarkably similar across guides. Chapter 1 is supposed to have a problem statement and list of research questions. Chapter 2 needs to cover both the theoretical and empirical literature relevant to the research questions. Chapter 3 needs to spell out research design, measures used, research procedures, and modes of analysis employed. Chapter 4 summarises the findings of the research and provides analysis of these results. And Chapter 5 covers four canonical areas: summary of results, conclusions, limitations of the study, and recommendations for future research.

Of course, you do have to fill up these five chapters with content, and the total length can run from 15,000 to 80,000 words. But you have years to do all this. And graduate school helpfully provides you with the content you need. Courses teach you how to create research questions, what the literature says about your particular subfield of expertise, what methods of data collection and analysis can best be used in this field, how to demonstrate the validity of your findings, and how to draw credible conclusions from your analysis. Pick a topic and pick a method, and the rest is plug and play. Once those decisions are made and the data gathered, the dissertation more or less writes itself.

A telling sign of formalism is that chapter titles in dissertations frequently assume the titles used in the five-chapter outline. Chapter 1 is not ‘An Introduction to Topic X’; it’s just ‘Introduction’. Chapter 2 is ‘Review of the Literature’; 3 is ‘Methods’; 4 is ‘Analysis’; and 5 is ‘Conclusion’. Specifying content, personalising the presentation of results, tailoring the format to the demands of your own study – all of these are either not needed or forbidden. Your job is to reproduce the form of the five-chapter dissertation, and you do so, literally.

Given how generic the format is, it’s not surprising that enterprising companies are willing to go one step further and actually produce the dissertation for you on demand, for the right price. As with the Babel Generator, turning out a dissertation is not that difficult if you know the algorithm and produce something that looks and feels like a dissertation. Ads for these websites kept popping up as I was searching Google for information about the five-chapter dissertation. So I checked out the most prominent of these (the one that paid for placement highest on the list), called GradeMiners. They would produce any kind of school paper, but dissertations were one of their specialties. Drop-down menus allowed you to make the appropriate selection. I chose PhD dissertation, APA style, 100 pages, ‘professional quality’, ‘a top writer in this subject to do my work’, ‘professional quality check for my order’, 50 sources, in English, and on the topic ‘US Curriculum History’. On the ‘urgency’ menu, I selected that I wanted it within 30 days. The bottom line: I could get all this in a month for $9,623.99. Really, not a bad deal. For a little extra money, they will also carry out a plagiarism check. After all, there’s nothing worse than a ghostwriter who cheats by plagiarising someone else’s work.

This brings us to the top level of my examination of the Rule of Five, the way that this form shapes the dominant genre of research production used by the professional scholars in the professoriate – the refereed journal article. This is the medium that governs the process of hiring, promotion and tenure within the academic profession. It’s the way to get ahead and stay ahead in your career – the way to establish your reputation, gain a following, and win accolades. And in order to get past the gatekeepers in the process – editors and reviewers at top-ranked academic journals – you need to produce papers that meet generally accepted standards. You need papers that look like, feel like, and sound like the canonical journal article. As we have seen at the lower levels, the content can be nearly anything, as long as the form is correct.

The journal-article version of the Rule of Five is known by the mnemonic IMRaD (or IMRAD), which identifies the labels and order of the conventional paper. The letters stand for the required sections in the proper order: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. Check them off, and you’re done.

But wait a minute, you say; this is only four sections. What happened to the literature review? Well, it turns out that the lit review is incorporated within the introduction. In a short journal article, prior literature might take up only a paragraph or two of the text, so why waste a whole section on it?

Some critics, of course, have pointed out that the IMRaD format is a bit, you know, rigid. Helen Sword wrote a book called Stylish Academic Writing (2012) that I use in my own writing class. In it, she encourages scholars to break free of the rhetorical constraints that tradition imposes on scholarly publication. But she realises she is trying to roll back the tide. For readers and writers alike, IMRaD is simply too handy to give up:

This write-by-numbers approach prompts researchers to plan their research methodically, conduct it rigorously, and present it coherently, without leaving out any crucial information. Moreover, a conventional structure is relatively easy for new academics to learn; all they have to do is follow models established by others before them. Readers, meanwhile, know exactly where to look for key findings. They can skim the abstract, mine the literature review, scan the data, and grab the conclusions without wasting valuable time actually reading.

I love the last line – ‘without wasting valuable time actually reading’. This is the whole point of the Rule of Five, isn’t it? It makes scholarly writing easy to learn, easy to read, and easy to evaluate. Like the five-paragraph essay and the five-chapter dissertation, IMRaD reduces the cognitive load involved in teaching, learning, producing, reviewing and consuming academic texts. If you choose not to write by the numbers, you risk alienating teachers, editors, reviewers and readers. You have a big incentive to make their lives easy, which will then increase the likelihood that you will succeed.

This is my point. The Rule of Five spells out issues that need to be addressed in any piece of analytical writing: argument, frame, evidence, analysis, conclusion. If you don’t address these issues, then you are not doing an effective job of presenting your work. But by addressing them only in this order, and confining each function of the argument to a hermetically sealed location within the paper, you turn a useful set of guidelines into an iron cage. It’s dysfunctional – to say nothing of off-putting, infantilising and intellectually arid. But, then again, it makes life easier for all concerned. So it’s not going away soon.


Filed under how teachers teach

When ‘Reform’ Means a Process of Elimination (Beverly Gage)

Because schools are political institutions deeply embedded in American society and as the cliche has it–when the nation has a cold, the schools sneeze–reform after reform has swept across the U.S time and again since the 18th century. Inevitably, after the establishment of tax-supported public schools, decentralized as they are==there are 13,000-plusschooldistricts in the U.S.–they too have been swept up in those national political,social,and economic reforms. Both school policy and practice have been affected by the cascade of changes. Beverly Gage nicely summarizes the various meanings of “reform” and describes the concept’s history in this piece.

“Beverly Gage is a professor of American political history at Yale. She is the author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror” and is currently writing a biography of the former F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.”

This article appeared in the New York Times Magazine February 18, 2018


When we elect politicians to office, it’s with the expectation (or at least the hope) that they will do something meant to improve our lives. Presumably this improvement will require change, the correction of past mistakes or persistent injustices — a process known, in its most benevolent guise, as “reform.” In personal life, reform means a brave step toward self-improvement and purification; nobody reforms himself into becoming an alcoholic. It’s much the same in the public sphere: a promise to fix what’s wrong with the body politic, usually through sober bipartisan policymaking. The process, in theory, goes only one way — onward into a brighter, better future.

This air of positivity helps explain why nearly every policy proposal in Washington ends up advertised as a reform. Slashing taxes on the wealthy is “tax reform.” Repealing Obamacare is “health care reform.” Building a wall along the Mexican border is “immigration reform” — but so is finding a path to citizenship for Dreamers. In his State of the Union address, President Trump mentioned reform nine times, describing solutions for problems ranging from border control to opioid addiction and hailing — to thunderous applause, if not high factual standards — the recent passage of “the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history.”

Reform lives and breathes good intentions. It declares the existence of a concrete problem that really does need to be solved. Political enemies are forced onto the defensive: Opposing reform means defending the status quo, no matter how bloated or feckless the current state of affairs may be. This tactic is particularly useful when so-called reformers hope to gut the very programs they’re claiming to improve. “Welfare reform” set that template in the 1990s, purporting to free Americans from dependency by giving them a whole lot less welfare. Attempts at “reforming” Obamacare, in 2017, meant getting rid of as many of its provisions as possible.

All this reflects the continued hollowing out of our political language, in which words often generate emotion without producing meaning. “Reform,” these days, may purport to fix things, but it tends to evade the hard work of defining either a problem or a solution. It posits a self-evident consensus — about a system’s failures, and about what might be preferable — where none exists.

The granddaddy of all reforms is still the Protestant Reformation, that long assault on the luxuries of the Catholic Church. In the early 19th century, though, a more secular meaning appeared, as elites considered whether judicious tweaks to the existing system might help contain social disorder or prevent uprisings. Reform emerged as the moderate alternative to revolution: still full of passion and ambition, but without so much chaos and lopping off of heads. It soon became the essential tool of progress — a way for society to evolve, slowly but surely, into an ever-more-ideal state. In Britain, “parliamentary reform” sought to root out corruption and lower the requirements for voting. On both sides of the Atlantic, early-19th-century reformers held on to strains of Protestant moralism, going after drinking and slaveholding as not only bad politics but also sins.

The shift toward reform as a matter of public policy came with the rise of industrial capitalism. By the early 20th century, middle-class Americans found themselves awash in social crises: overcrowded cities, political corruption, mass immigration, wild disparities of wealth. But they were also surrounded by new ideas about how to solve those problems, from a muckraking press to the budding expertise of social scientists, who promised that humans could understand and fix large-scale problems. From this mix came the idea of “reform” as a way to adjust society to cope with its new realities — and the image of “reformers” as a special breed of educated do-gooders. Crusading intellectuals like Jane Addams and John Dewey came to epitomize this type: privileged members of society who put their talents to work devising new ways to help the poor or to educate children, aiming to liberate the human spirit to reach its full potential.

Progressive reformers helped bring about tenement laws and income taxes, trustbusting and labor protections, women’s suffrage and the direct election of senators. Some of these measures tried to rein in the capitalist beast, returning the country to an age of yeoman farmers and small-scale producers; others embraced the modern dream of organizing human activity in ever more rational, efficient ways. In either case, some Americans wanted none of it, and saw “reform” as perilously close to an elite conspiracy. The era’s conservatives insisted that human nature — and therefore human society — was irredeemably imperfect, and that too much mucking around with social legislation bred an overreaching, tyrannical government. Left-wing radicals often disliked such projects, too, insisting that the dribs and drabs of reform were a bourgeois project that only delayed what really needed to be done, which was obviously revolution. In her famous 1899 essay “Reform or Revolution,” the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued that reform should never be an end in itself, but that agitating for it could be a means of preparing for the final confrontation with capitalism.

These tensions lasted well into the New Deal, the crowning years of America’s enthusiasm for reform. New Dealers held on to progressive ideas while sloughing off some of the moralizing. Over time, though, their economic policies ushered in what the historian Alan Brinkley has described, in the title of a 1995 book, as “The End of Reform.” The New Deal, he wrote, grew from a complex tradition of progressive reform, then “attached the word ‘liberalism’ to it, and set about transforming it.” The new liberals ultimately pinned their hopes on economic growth and Keynesian tinkering, not the trickier task of actively redistributing wealth and power. Over the decades that followed, they would orient themselves increasingly toward civil and social rights rather than sweeping economic reform, a subtle but important shift.

This may have spelled the “end” of a certain mode of reform, but it did little to change reform’s association with progressives and liberals — even when it was taken up by their opponents. In 1955, the historian Richard Hofstadter published a book whose title named the period from the 1890s through the 1940s “The Age of Reform.” He accepted as axiomatic that reformers came from “the side of the left in American history.” Still, he noted, there was now a tendency among conservative politicians to claim “reform” and “reformer” as gauzy, feel-good labels. “We usually reserve our highest acclaim for the politician who has in him a touch of the liberal reformer,” Hofstadter wrote. As a result, any talented conservative politician learned how to “exert his maximal influence by using the rhetoric of progressivism and winning the plaudits of the reformers” — while otherwise working against what most progressives would want.

Six decades later, a similar impulse seems to hold sway in Washington. While Democrats search for a muscular patriotic language to win back Trump voters (or galvanize their own), Republicans and conservatives seem happy enough to claim the gentler mantle of reform, especially when facing popular skepticism or outright hostility toward their policy proposals. Having accomplished “tax reform,” Speaker Paul Ryan now dreams of “entitlement reform,” through which he envisions reducing the deficit by cutting back on signature liberal programs like Medicare and Social Security. In a recent open letter sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, 12 conservative figures urged Ryan, along with Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, not to forget about “health reform,” by which they mean continuing the effort to undo Obamacare. Several signers of that letter have been described as “reform conservatives,” a loose term that signals inside-the-Beltway policy seriousness while creating distance from the more xenophobic elements of the Republican Party.

Not all aspects of reform carry quite the same partisan or ideological tinge. “Criminal-justice reform,” intended to reduce the harms of mass incarceration, seems to be one of the few genuinely bipartisan agenda items in Washington. (Trump himself, who rails against “savage” criminals, has spoken about “reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”) “Campaign-finance reform” occasionally rallies support across party lines, as do a few select aspects of “immigration reform.”

But even those issues — narrow, practical and still contentious — point to some of the limits of reform right now. A century ago, reform meant coming up with inspiring new ideas that would lead to greater justice, a confidence that human planning and ingenuity could accomplish grand and transformative things. Now it seems to mean, at best, restrained corrective measures — and far more often than that, actively undoing the policies of the past, an act of hardheaded resignation rather than of collective hope. Reform once promised a future of unparalleled opportunity. Today, it often marks the opposite, a loss of faith in the idea of progress itself.


Filed under Reforming schools

To Hug or Not: Physicians Differ on What’s the Right Behavior (Sandra Levy)

This article appeared February 19, 2018 in Medscape. Because clinical medicine is called a helping profession (as is teaching, nursing, psychotherapy, and social work) the relationship between doctor and patient is crucial to improving health and providing care for those whose health is deteriorating beyond what doctors can do. In such professions, dilemmasare rife. Whether or not to hug patients, a dilemma known to others in the helping professions where values of being a professional and being personal and humane clash, speaks to educators as well.


Avoid Hugging Your Patient

Although there are many pro-hug physicians, there are also many who are strongly against it. Many physicians are adamantly opposed to hugging because they believe that it changes the physician/patient relationship and creates potential risks.

A neurologist said:

I was always taught a hug can be misconstrued. I still stand by this concept. If someone has a loss, I will touch their arm and express my sympathy. This is why it is good to keep a certain distance to avoid this situation in the first place. To treat a patient, you must have their respect. If someone is too familiar, it can get in the way of treatment. Just my two cents. You want to be treated by your physician whom you respect, not your buddy you can have a beer with.

An infectious disease physician agreed:

I try not to hug anyone when I am in a professional setting. I try not to even handshake, in that I consider that action a business-to-business relationship (sealing the deal with a realtor, for example). Furthermore, in my subprofession, infectious diseases, I think some patients are appreciative not to shake my hand upon entry to the exam room or arriving at the patient’s bedside.

One anesthesiologist talked about potential risks:

A physical exam includes more than enough touch to comfort a patient. Take the vitals yourself, listen to the heart, lungs, and abdomen, and that is more than enough touch. Do not put your career in the hands of a potential nut-job or gold-digger (they do exist, you know). If a woman accuses a man of improper touch, Oprah says we have to believe her. The risk/benefit ratio is too high.

An ob/gyn echoed the comments above:

What you think will be a good idea hugging the patient may come back to haunt you. You’re not a mind-reader. You don’t know how the patient will react or what the patient thinks about you reaching over and hugging them. It’s like walking through a minefield. Maybe you get across without being hurt. One misstep and it can blow up right in your face.

A dermatologist who is against hugging, but who has been hugged by a patient, said:

I have grappled with this question over the years, but I mostly settled on total avoidance of embrace. An occasional hug when there has been a death in a patient family, but I recall this as once every few years. I have also been caught unawares on a few occasions when the embrace was initiated by the patient.

Awkward, but I have always managed to extricate myself from it. Those of us who have chosen a single lifestyle do have to be that much more careful. In the current environment, I will institute total avoidance without exceptions henceforth. Fortunately for me in a consultative specialty practice, long-term relationships are few.


This physician concurred: “My office visits are strictly on a professional level for the benefit of the patient. I do not hug any patients, or allow any patients to hug me.”

The reasons to avoid hugging are plentiful, says an emergency medicine physician. Hugs may make the recipient feel better, but the cons include the following: “The recipient calls the police and files charges of sexual battery. The district attorney chooses to prosecute. The patient files a lawsuit. The medical board revokes the doctor’s license. The doctor becomes bankrupted from the costs of his legal defense, plaintiff’s award, and loss of income and restriction from practicing medicine.”


Another emergency medicine physician agreed. “Many a career has been ruined by three simple words: ‘He touched me.’ It all comes down to how the recipient perceives the contact. If it is perceived as a physical violation, then that’s what it becomes.”


Another healthcare provider said that listening is better than hugging. “No, we should not ever hug patients. It is an unequal relationship and can be misconstrued. Shaking hands, speaking kindly, and spending time are proper. And practicing the lost art of listening. That’s what patients want.”


Another physician adamantly opposed to hugging said, “No hugging. This is not a friendship; it’s a professional interaction with a patient. Businesspeople don’t hug, lawyers don’t hug, we shouldn’t either.”


This physician offered an alternative to hugging:

I shake hands or say a traditional ‘namasthe’ with both hands touching as in praying, which conveys all of my good feelings, thoughts, and wishes to my patients effectively. I go out of my routine and keep a hand on the shoulder of the depressed and those suffering a poor prognosis. The mind conveys everything. I have never had to hug a patient to convey my best intentions or my empathy. I am in the business for the past three-plus decades.


One psychiatrist suggested an interesting interpretation of the hugging interaction:

Come on! Who is this hug for? The hugging doctors sound like they are tethered to prove something to themselves and by extension to their patients. I’m a nonhugger with exceptions, but as a psychiatrist, respecting the boundaries of people for whom that has not always been the case is something I can do for them. If a doctor hugged me, I’d get another doctor. I’m not convinced the hugging docs truly read their patients correctly because of the inherent power imbalance.


Finally, although it appears that there are numerous reasons why physicians have different views when it comes to hugging patients, they have also made it clear that in the current climate where hugs may be misconstrued as sexual harassment, it is wise to assess the situation and to use a cautious approach when initiating a hug or when receiving a hug.



Filed under compare education and medicine